Claggy, thick, beautiful and brown. Gummed up grass alighted on the rim and clung to the spokes like some escaped algae. Front wheels sailed from beneath the riders in sudden and unmistakable mutiny and the soft thud of bodies on earth sounded from all directions. The long awaited mud had arrived.
Designing a cyclocross course is easy. You survey the terrain and dream up some fun features. Then you get a google maps screenshot and you draw a squiggly line. Throw in some switchbacks, a run up and some hurdles and you can call it in. But designing a good course? That takes a little extra. The fourth round of the Hüttcross series went down at Moonshine Park, a ground that offers plenty of variety. But the race on Sunday was a testament to the vital role of the weather. Though calm and only slightly drizzly on the day, there was plenty of mud latent in the ground from a miserable week leading up.
Numbers were down. They were always going to be down. Thick clouds hung fat in the air and released their sheets all over Upper Hutt. Across the region, 10's of people looked out their windows and decided they couldn't be assed with it all. But Cyclocross is, after all, a winter sport, and little did they know they would miss the best course yet.
The squiggly line, roped in by tape and pigtail, holds merely potential. Its eventuality is dictated by the weather. And when things get wet, even the most innocuous of turns can get buck wild. Out back of the course was a special section dedicated just for A and B grade with a run up. Not some namby-pamby allusion to a run up, but a treacherous and steep sprint that mainlined acid straight into twitching calves. It was glorious. Closer to home base was a set of slick, flat turns that looked dead easy but plucked many unsuspecting victims straight out of the sky and dropped them onto the ground.
The course designer's job is easier when the rain comes to the party. Long off-camber traverses can be pulled back, left slippery as all hell but with a light at the end of the tunnel. In several places riders could be found teetering on the edge and focusing desperately on the end point, hoping to survive just long enough to make the turn down the bank. Get it right, and you sail down in the warm wrap of success. But get it wrong ...
At the finish lines chuffed riders congregated to swap their stories. The greater challenge had been well received, and most found that even when they pushed it too far and paid the price, the price wasn't really all so high. The contest between mountain biker and road pedigrees continued, with the result falling comfortably to the mountain bikers.
This weekend heralds the Cyclocross National Champs in Dunedin. Last year, Wellington riders took out the lion's share of medals, and Martine Barnes and Brendon Sharratt will be heading down to defend their titles. Due to the difficulties in routing the National Champs through the bungling machinery that is the sport's governing body, the Dunedin organisers were forced to drop the official aspect of the race at the eleventh hour. Nevertheless, the Wellington contingent will be hoping to build on the lessons learned in the 2015 series and translate them into a good showing at the "unofficial" National Champs. And at the very least, perhaps an absence of bureaucracy will leave room for a little more festivity.
(All photos courtesy of Ricoh Riott)